Migratory bird identification clues
Over the last few weeks I've been receiving reports of bluebirds and orioles at customers' seed feeders. The arrival of spring migrants creates a situation in which it is easy to confuse the identification of some bird species because many migratory species arrive within a week or two of each other. Today's article will focus on identification tips for four species that are often mis-identified.
• Black-headed grosbeaks vs. orioles. Orioles are more slender in build, and have a long, straight bill that is used for eating fruit, buds on trees, insects, and for getting nectar from flowers. Orioles are frequent visitors at both oriole and hummingbird feeders, as they enjoy nectar (sugar water) along with sliced oranges and grape jelly. They are not a species that can be attracted to the yard by providing wild bird seed.
Grosbeaks are quite stocky in appearance, and have a very short, conical shaped bill that is used for cracking open seeds. Black-headed grosbeaks have some of the same coloration as orioles such as black, orange and yellow, which is why they are often confused with orioles, but the colors are in a different pattern. Grosbeaks' diet consists mostly of seeds, their favorite being both varieties of sunflower seeds – black oil sunflower and striped sunflower. Black-headed grosbeaks are frequent visitors to bird feeders where bird seed is offered.
• Lazuli buntings vs. bluebirds. Western bluebirds are a year-round resident in the Prescott area but are more commonly seen in the winter months when they inhabit lower elevations. During the summer months, western bluebirds tend to gravitate toward higher elevations where ponderosa pines are abundant.
The blue coloring on bluebirds is a dark, deep shade of blue, and the rust color on western bluebirds extends not only down the breast but also down the back. Bluebirds are primarily insect and fruit eaters and not seed eaters, so they are usually not seen at bird feeders where bird seed is offered.
Lazuli buntings are considered a "transient" migratory species. The winter range for lazuli buntings is to the south of Prescott, and their summer range is to the north of Prescott. As the buntings travel between their winter range to the south and their summer range to the north they pass through Prescott in the spring and then again in the fall. The blue on the buntings is a lighter shade, more of a sky blue, and the rust color is restricted to the upper breast area. One key identifying mark on buntings which distinguish them from bluebirds is the large patches of white in the wings. Buntings are seed eaters, prefer white-proso millet, and are frequently seen down on the ground feeding, much like juncos and white-crowned sparrows.
I thank the hardy souls who braved the cool and windy weather this past Tuesday morning to participate in the bird walk I led at Watters Garden Center. Due to the strong winds it seemed that most of the birds in the area were hunkered down, but there were a few highlights.
The best bird sighting of our morning was a beautiful male blue grosbeak which all of us got to see for an extended period of time. This species was a life bird for many of the participants. I saw the blue grosbeak again later the same day drinking at the water feature on Watters property.
Some of the other birds which we saw on our morning walk included house finches, house sparrows, lesser goldfinches, bushtits, a black-headed grosbeak and brown-headed cowbirds, to name a few. My bird list for Watters is now up to 54 species! Don't hestitate to bring your binoculars when you come to Jay's and take a few minutes to check out the birds that can be seen around Watters.
If you have specific questions or issues related to wild birds that you would like discussed in future articles, you can submit them to Jay's Bird Barn, P.O. Box 11471, Prescott, AZ 86304, or e-mail your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Until next week, happy birding!
Eric M. Moore is the owner of Jay's Bird Barn located at Watters Garden Center and has been an avid birder for close to 40 years.